The International Transgender Day of Remembrance

Remember Me Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Louis Bailey, offers insights into the the origins of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, commemorated on the 20th of November.

The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance is fast approaching.  Every year on or around November 20th, members of the trans community in cities all over the world come together to mourn the loss of those who have been murdered in transphobic-motivated attacks.  The annual memorial service serves as an annual reminder of the sheer amount of violence that is directed against trans people and especially trans women of colour day-to-day, year-on-year.

The annual Remembrance Day started in 1998 after the murder of Rita Hester, an African-American Boston woman who was murdered two days before her 35th birthday on the evening of November 28th 1998.  She had been stabbed in the chest twenty times and died from a cardiac arrest upon arrival at hospital.  Her killer has never been found.

Just a few years before, in 1995, Chanelle Pickett, a black trans woman, was found dead in her flat in Boston, having been beaten and strangled by William Palmer.  The case was brought to trial but the defendant was not convicted for murder or even manslaughter after his defence argued in favour of ‘trans panic’, alleging that the death was, in part, a result of an emotional reaction to the revelation that the deceased was trans (despite the fact that several trans women claimed to have had sexual encounters with Palmer).  As a result, Palmer was given just a two year sentence for assault and battery.

The ‘trans panic’ defence is still legal across every state in the U.S, bar California.  At its root is the assumption that everyone is cisgender* unless revealed to be otherwise and that trans women, in particular, are ‘tricking’ unsuspecting men into sleeping with them.  The ‘trans panic’ defence prioritises the perpetrator’s interpretation of their victim’s identity over the victim’s own sense of their gendered self.

After Rita Hester’s death, the media wrongly referred to her as ‘a transvestite’, a ‘man who…preferred women’s clothes’, and placed her name in quotes.  It is sadly all too common for similar stories to be misreported by the media, for trans people’s gender identities to be denied, serving as a double erasure of selfhood both in life and after death.

Upon hearing about the murder of Rita Hester, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a computer programmer in San Francisco, set up the ‘Remembering Our Dead’ memorial project, an online record documenting those who have died as a result of transphobia-motivated violence (http://braided-web.net/remember.html).  It was Smith who then went on to create the first Transgender Day of Remembrance event in San Francisco.  It is now held in most cities around the world and is attended by increasing numbers of community members as well as family, friends and supporters.  A typical service might feature a talk by a prominent community member followed by the reading of the names of all those who have been killed by transphobic violence that year.  It is a way of giving dignity and respect to lives that are shamed and denied both in life and after death due to deep-seated societal transphobia.  In 2015, the names of 271 people were read out.

According to the Trans Murder Monitoring project (TGEU, http://tgeu.org/tmm/) there have been 100 reported murders of trans and gender variant people in the first four months of this year alone – the highest number in the first four months of the year registered by the TMM project since its inception in 2008.  It may be that violence is increasing or it may be that more crimes are being reported as motivated by transphobia.  The Project documents 2115 reported killings of trans and gender variant people in sixty-five countries between January 1st, 2008, and April 30th, 2016.  Of these, 1654 deaths occurred in Central and South America.  However, according to the TGEU, these figures are ‘only the tip of the iceberg’ as: ‘In most countries, data on murdered trans and gender diverse people are not systematically produced, and it is impossible to estimate the numbers of unreported cases’.

The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance always produces mixed emotions.  There is sadness and there is anger at the sheer number of people who have been so violently taken from us and there is a need to come together as a community, to support one-another and to honour those who have died.  It is about remembering and commemorating lives which might otherwise be forgotten, lives which might otherwise be reduced to just another hate crime statistic, misinterpreted as an isolated event which happened to someone else, somewhere else.  There is a bolder resistance and defiance too, to share the love and pride that we feel as a community but also a commitment to tackle the prejudice and violence which disproportionately affects the most vulnerable and marginalised among us.  By far the majority of names that are read out each year belong to trans women of colour and specifically women who have been pushed to the edges of society (experiencing poverty, homelessness, sex work etc), who have been on the receiving end of multiple forms of stigma, rejection and discrimination that is inherently tied to gender, social class, geography and race.  So, whilst the Transgender Day of Remembrance is about a commitment to commemoration and remembrance, it is also about reflecting as individuals and as a society about our compliance within the wider structures of power, control and violence and the ways in which we can fight back and create meaningful change.  In the words of scholar Sarah Lamble (2008):

‘None of us are innocent. We must envision practices of remembrance that
situate our own positions within structures of power that authorize violence
in the first place. Our task is to move from sympathy to responsibility, from
complicity to reflexivity, from witnessing to action. It is not enough to simply
honour the memory of the dead—we must transform the practices of the living.’

Purple anemone poppy isolated on black

Dr Louis Bailey is the lead researcher for the ‘Who Were They? Trans Identities and Memorialisation’ case study, one of nine strands comprising the ‘Remember Me’ study.  He will be undertaking participant observation at a handful of Transgender Day of Remembrance services across the UK between November 2016 and 2017.  This will feed into an online survey and in-depth interviews exploring trans people’s experiences of grief, attitudes towards death and the broader ways in which trans people are remembered and memorialised by family, friends and wider networks.

For more information about the project, please see http://www2.hull.ac.uk/fass/rememberme/theproject/whoweretheytransident.aspx

Louis was recently interviewed by the Hull Daily Mail and you can read the article here: http://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/university-of-hull-to-embark-on-first-uk-transgender-remembrance-study/story-29820122-detail/story.html

You can also view Louis’ previous posts here:

To get in touch with Dr Louis Bailey, please email Louis.Bailey@hull.ac.uk

*Cisgender: Describing the majority of the population whose gender identity matches the gender assigned to them at birth; someone who is not

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